Leftover Women

Should the country really be using a cruel term that insults the single women of the entire nation?


Imagine a pile of garbage lying on the ground: half-drunk bottles, torn cardboard, bags of stinking kitchen waste leaking, and atop this grubby pile, slumps a middle-aged woman, scruffy hair, chapped lips, dirty pajamas and dull eyes. Is this, an image of females left behind and abandoned, how the nation wants to portray woman who have simply had the audacity to commit the crime of not marrying? Because this is exactly what is portrayed with, that most derogatory of terms, Leftover Women (shengnü), a phrase that for the best part of a decade has insulted millions of single women across the country.

Leftover Women are officially defined as those, “over 27 years-old, unmarried, often educated, urban women with high-incomes.” Only ten months after the term was first used, it was ‘honored’ by the Ministry of Education as one of 171 newly-created Chinese words. It is widely reported that the expression was first used in an article titled “Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy” published by the All-China Women’s Federation, a body whose function is supposed to represent and protect women’s rights and promote gender equality, but instead seems more intent on consigning women to the dark ages. In a shocking objectification of women by women, the article states, “Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult.” It continues in the same patronizing vein, “These girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less. So by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old — like yellowed pearls.” Yes, this is how the country’s foremost ‘women’s rights’ group portrays women.

Since then dozens of articles have been published by the federation on the same topic, with themes such as how to stand out in a crowd, match-making advice, or shoddy psychological analyses. At the end of 2012, the federation dropped the term after an outcry among educated women, replacing it with “Old Unmarried Women” instead. But the expression remains widely used, including in surveys, news reports, forums, TV series, and pictures. According to Baidu Index, in 2015, the keyword is one of the most popular search terms on the Chinese internet, being most commonly searched for in Guangdong, followed by Beijing and Zhejiang.

She goes on a string of blind dates and marries a complete stranger even though she knows something is wrong between them. Yup, this is the society we live in.

In 2014, Leta Hong Fincher, an award-winning US journalist, wrote a book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Fincher’s argued the term was part of a marriage-pushing campaign to improve the nation’s population quality. Her argument goes that Chinese men tend to ‘marry down’ in terms of age and intellectual achievement. It is claimed that ‘A-quality’ men marry ‘B-quality’ women, and ‘B-quality’ men marry ‘C-quality’ women. This means ‘A-quality’ women and ‘C-quality’ men are left out. In order to get these ‘A-quality’ women to marry and thus improve the gene pool, the government simply intensifies single women’s fear of being left alone. And it works, for some.

In a conservative country, particularly in rural areas, women of a certain age are considered a shame on the family. Think of a single women in her late 20s: she browses the news, reads about a celebrity getting married to get rid of her shengnü title; hears the term Leftover Women constantly; at work her colleagues ‘kindly’ educate her on the importance of marriage; even when she visits her parents, her mother adopts the term, she heard on the radio, to lecture her. Fear ignites and grows inside her, and she becomes anxious. She goes on a string of blind dates and marries a complete stranger even though she knows something is wrong between them. Yup, this is the society we live in.

About 100 years ago, a group of women living in the PRD vowed never to marry, combing their hair up in their girlhood to declare their devotion to a life without a spouse. These unmarried were called “Self-Combed Women”, matter-of-factly, without discrimination or insult. While in modern China, single women, who have never made such extreme lifelong vows are treated with such contempt. While a country may want to encourage its people to marry, doing so through a campaign of fear while enhancing inequity, effectively tricking the nation’s women into marriage is a very scary prospect indeed.